Come dinnertime, the streets of San Francisco’s hippest restaurants become nearly impassable with Doordashers and UberEats couriers double-parked. A person’s urgent need for Souvla packaging delivered right to their doorstep makes life miserable for just about everyone traveling on streets like Valencia, Divisadero and Polk.
Zoomo, an Australian e-bike rental company that has operated in San Francisco since mid-2019, thinks it has the solution. The company is on a mission to provide “the right tool for the job” for the booming food and grocery delivery industry, said Joey Skavroneck, U.S. director at San Francisco-based Zoomo.
“A bicycle is obviously much cheaper than a 4,000 pound car delivers a one pound burrito,” Skavroneck said. “A lot of the externalities and costs typically associated with cars, whether it’s double parking, idling in traffic, getting a traffic ticket, you don’t see that with e-bikes.”
Zoomo’s e-bikes represent a promising frontier in San Francisco’s otherwise quixotic quest to get people out of their cars. Delivering food on electric-powered two-wheelers is simply easier, faster and – especially with gas prices – cheaper than using a car.
“Our delivery times are down now,” said Shane Curran, restaurant manager at L’Costa in Union Square, which works with Butler Hospitality to deliver room service meals to nearby hotels. His company started renting two bikes from Zoomo about a month ago. “We can take a lot more orders.”
Budget Electric Bikes
Zoomo’s North Beach storefront and repair shop was buzzing on a recent weekday afternoon. Tourists wandered around looking for day bike rentals, but came away disappointed. Most Zoomo customers are couriers who rent by the week.
The company declined to specify how many bikes are in its San Francisco fleet, but it currently offers three varieties of bespoke bikes: two pedal-assist e-bikes with a top speed of 25 miles per hour and a throttle e-bike. with a top speed of 18 miles per hour. All bikes are designed with delivery in mind, including rear racks for storage, strong U-locks, phone holders and built-in lights.
Basic rental plans cost between $25 and $61 per week in San Francisco, before insurance, fees, and extras like swappable batteries and delivery bags. Some runners reported spending up to $90 per week. The company sells new bikes starting at $2,700 and used bikes for around $1,000. It also offers a rent-to-own program for as little as $200 down.
Reviews of the bikes performance were mixed. Two renters complained about delays in accessing maintenance, but others praised Zoomo’s customer service and the quality of the bikes. Two other runners reported having problems with their brakes.
Danny Sauter, leader of a group called North Beach Delivers that ran a food delivery program during the height of the pandemic, convinced Zoomo to provide five or six bikes for free one night a week. After praising the company’s generosity, Sauter said the bikes were “everywhere” in terms of quality. “It seems like this technology is moving so fast, every time we went to buy a bike there was a new model.”
Whatever the downsides of Zoomo’s approach, there are definite upsides.
“There’s a certain risk associated with (e-bikes) if people don’t know what they’re doing,” said Melinda Hanson, head of Electric Avenue, a micromobility consultancy group. “If they’re tinkering mostly with lithium-ion batteries and in some cases lead-acid batteries, that can create real challenges.”
Zoomo tenants are responsible for charging and storage, but Zoomo takes care of maintenance. Zoomo’s bikes also feature anti-theft tracking technology and insurance deductibles that reduce riders’ risk if the bikes are stolen or damaged.
“It’s affordable for people on a transit budget,” Hanson said of Zoomo’s rental bikes. That sets it apart from other green transportation options, Hanson said, noting that nearly 80% of subsidies for electric cars go to households earning more than $100,000 a year.
Governments just starting to provide subsidies for e-bikes: The Bay Area Air Quality Management District helped fund the purchase of 15 e-bikes in a first program in the state launched in 2021, the agency said. The same program made it possible to finance the purchase of more than 2,200 electric cars. Despite the subsidy mismatch, Americans bought more e-bikes in 2020 and 2021 than electric cars, according to the Light Electric Vehicle Association.
In a low-wage field like delivery work, e-bikes are still a major investment for workers. A 2021 Worker’s Justice Project report on New York City delivery riders, the majority of whom ride e-bikes, found that the average monthly payment for e-bikes was $368 and the average maintenance costs were of $139. The report highlights other precarious conditions for delivery workers, including low wages, lack of health care and high risk of crime and traffic accidents.
Zoomo can’t solve all delivery labor issues, but it can help expand access to the tool that empowers workers to do their jobs with a lighter impact on the environment – and their own books of poached. “Every dollar counts” for delivery people, Hanson said. “An e-bike is a much more affordable mode that helps them make deliveries quickly and efficiently while saving as much money as possible.”
Zoomo sees things the same way. “We’re democratizing this new technology for people who don’t have as much discretionary income,” Skavroneck said. “It’s the opposite of what you’ve seen around Tesla’s solar panels and a lot of these emerging green technologies.”
From burritos to boxes
Zoomo is growing rapidly, with operations in Australia, Europe and North America, and a target of 30,000 bikes on the road by the end of this year. The company has raised more than $100 million in venture capital since its founding in 2017 and recently hired Jules Flynn, a former head of bikes and scooters at Lyft, and Alan Wells, a former Uber and Cruise, for its management team.
The company’s US business is made up of about half individual renters and half corporate customers, such as Uber, Doordash, Domino’s, Deliveroo and DHL. Food Rocket, a Bay Area-based grocery delivery startup, rents bikes directly from Zoomo for use by its delivery drivers.
“For many of our customers, for deliveries of around 5 miles and under, e-bikes are actually not only the cheapest option in their fleet, but they are also the fastest and most efficient,” said said Skavroneck.
The company is in the early stages of experimenting with delivering packages using e-bike trailers with a load capacity of 1,000 pounds, Skravoneck said. That means these bikes could one day replace FedEx and Amazon delivery trucks — not just construction workers’ Honda Civics.
Parcel delivery by cargo bike is already common in Europe, and as one of the most European cities in America, San Francisco might be a good candidate to follow suit. “San Francisco is a really unique city in that we’re quite small in terms of miles,” said Nesrine Majzoub, communications director for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. “If there’s an incentive for people to switch from car delivery to e-bikes…I think that’s a great opportunity.”
But to get there, San Francisco will have to rethink how it allocates its street space. “Many cities still have a long way to go to provide the kind of infrastructure that will really help keep cyclists, commuters and anyone who uses two wheels to get around safe,” Hanson said. “Car-free Market Street, car-free JFK – these are huge accomplishments that should be reported across the city.”